The college completion agenda is picking up across the nation. States are seizing the opportunity to set new goals for increasing the number of citizens who hold postsecondary certificates or degrees. The ultimate aim of this initiative is to generate a more skilled, qualified and credentialed pool of candidates to infuse into the workforce, thereby creating a more robust and thriving economy. But is the standard for postsecondary education the right benchmark to be aiming for all citizens?
Texas Latest State to Join the Race
Acting as a catalyst for this agenda, the Lumina Foundation set forth a national goal called Goal 2025, aiming to have 60% of Americans holding a college degree or postsecondary credential by 2025. Lumina has since encouraged states and schools to develop their own goals for increasing the percentage of post-secondary degree holders, and since then, 32 states have set new statewide goals for degree completion. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board set a new goal of 60% by 2030, as only 38 percent of 25-34 year-old Texans have a postsecondary degree or certificate. This plan would call for 550,000 Texans of that age bracket to earn either a certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree by 2030.1 Other states are aiming higher or lower, depending on each state’s unique socioeconomic standing and workforce needs. Ultimately, Lumina hopes that states with high academic achievement, such as Massachusetts, will aim higher in order to carry lower-earning states through for the national goal. The question is, will more workers with higher credentials help our nation improve socially and economically? Perhaps, but there are other factors to consider first.
It’s certainly a step in the right direction encouraging each state to set goals to ensure citizens are getting educated. Additionally, Lumina has called out the discrepancies in degree attainment rates between socioeconomic, racial groups, immigrants, and first-generation students, which is an undeniable factor to consider when proposing new solutions. But the benchmarks for success might not be realistic in this case. Standards implemented by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required states to meet a series of benchmarks, which meant states pressured school districts, and school districts pressured teachers to improve test grades. Teachers were then forced to lower standards in order to pass students. The Goal 2025 model is similar. Community colleges and universities cannot be the first place we go to solve this issue. Not only will educational reform have to be much broader than that, but first and foremost, we must focus on helping the 24 million adults over the age of 25 who do not have their high school diploma earn one.(2) Sadly, out of the 24 million non-completers, 7 million of those adults dropped out in 11th or 12th grade.2 While it is important that states are striving to hit new college completion benchmarks, we cannot forget those adults who are lacking a high school diploma or GED. In a similar vein, 16.8% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 in 2014 had not earned their high school diploma.3 This cohort as well is ripe with the need and requires a pathway to high school completion, before aiming for the positive virtues of higher education.
A Call for an Expanded Focus - The Need for Pathways
Earning your high school diploma is a must, even during the rise of the 21st century employer who is more focused on a candidate’s life-experience, culture fit, and hard skills rather than pedigree. While millions of adults in American still do not have a high school diploma, it would seem appropriate to concurrently focus on raising the high school completion rates and college completion rates. With an ever-increasing number of high school dropouts, immigrants, and folks of non-traditional age, High School Completion Programs that utilize a flexible, hybrid learning model would be a great first step for states to invest in. These programs would not require reforming our school systems, could be implemented immediately, and would be a cheaper, faster, and more effective alternative rather than waiting for Congress to pass a new education reform bill or putting the onus on schools to develop new standards.
If we can improve our national high school graduation rate, perhaps then states can discuss figure whether additional postsecondary credentialing is really necessary to improve the workforce.
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Resources: Photo Credit. (1) Big Completion Goals in Texas (2) Table 3. Detailed Years of School Completed by People 25 Years and Over by Sex, Age Groups, Race and Hispanic Origin: 2014 (3) Table 1. Educational Attainment of the Population 18 Years and Over, by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2014